In 2011, Nikki Green’s townhouse in Catonsville’s Academy Heights neighborhood flooded for the first time.
She was working as a childcare provider, caring for other peoples' children in her carpeted basement in the home she had lived in since 2000. After popping upstairs briefly to check on her own children, Green returned to the basement to find the carpet soaking wet, one end to the other.
“There was a bad storm, and all the water had been coming out of our shower and toilet,” Green said. “We realized we had sewage backup. That was our first flood.”
Since that day, the family has cleaned up four sewer backups caused by heavy rain — “maybe five,” Green’s husband, Rodney, said.
The Greens are not alone. Chris Burk, a civil engineer who lives in Academy Heights and whom, Green said, neighbors turn to for advice after backups, estimates that during the last major rainstorm, 15 to 20 houses had sewage in their basements. Green believes as many as 30 could have been affected.
In response to residents’ complaints about the the backups, Baltimore County is currently planning to build an extra sewer line that would increase the capacity of the existing sewer system and prevent backups, said Lauren Watley, a county spokeswoman. The new sewer, designed in 2015, would run down Lambeth Road to Edmondson Avenue, then east to Overbrook Drive.
The relief sewer, which the county estimates would cost around $2 million, is “moving forward,” Watley said, but is delayed as the county acquires permission from four property owners to do construction work on the land along the sewer line’s path. If the county is successful in gaining those permissions, construction of the sewer would take more than a year to complete, Watley said.
County officials do not know how many houses are affected by the backups, Watley said.
The problems with the sewer backups have reoccurred for decades, Burk said. In a 2005 consent decree, the federal government and environmental agencies directed the county to fix overflows in the aging sewer system, which were flowing from the ground in Academy Heights and contaminating Maryland waters.
The county eliminated those overflows in August 2011, Watley said, after an “extensive regimen” of inspections. The sewers were lined and repaired to prevent leaks. The connections between storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, which carry waste out of homes, were blocked.
The problem, however, persists: When it rains, Burk said, water seeps into cracks in sewer lines, and “fluid” — “and I’m using the polite term for it,” Burk said — rises out of drains and toilets into peoples’ basements.
County Councilman Tom Quirk said the county has put substantial investment into trying to stop the backups.
“It’s just been an ongoing issue, something the county’s always recognized,” Quirk said. “There’s been multiple attempts at trying to get this fixed. Hopefully the sewer relief coming in … will fundamentally change the landscape. And that’s what we all want.”
The next sewer backup, Green said, is “not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’”
The county suggested that homeowners install back flow valves — devices that prevent waste from backing up into the house — at their own expense, Burk said.
Green said before the last backup, she installed a valve at a cost of around $1,000, as did her neighbors. The valves did not solve the problem, she said, saying that she thinks hers was installed in the wrong place.
Because her insurance company caps benefits, Green estimates that her family has spent at least $15,000 on repairs out of pocket since 2011.
"We can’t sell our home because you have to disclose that you flood,” Green said. "Who’s going to purchase a house from you knowing that you flood?"
Green said the family of four does most of the cleanup themselves, because they were told that, after three claims, the insurance company could stop covering the backups. She said they have called in restoration companies after cleaning up, to check for health hazards that accompany sewage, such as the E. Coli bacteria.
During the July 2016 rainstorm that flooded nearby Ellicott City, Green said they used two shop-vacs to bail water from her basement until 2 a.m., to make sure the sewer water did not reach their furnace or hot water heater.
During a rainstorm, neighbors take off from work and stand guard, ready to vacuum water out, she said. She worries about her neighbor, who is 92, being able to prevent the water from reaching appliances.
At one point, Burk said, the county offered to scope sewer lines in six homes, to see if the section of the sewer line that belonged to the property needed any repairs. “But unfortunately, there were more than six people that would have liked the county to do this,” Burk said.
For now, Academy Heights residents are watching for the next storm, shop-vacs at the ready.
“It’s very frustrating, and it’s very scary,” Green said. “Hurricane season has been off the charts this year. We just pray at this point. We just pray every day."